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Bennett: Not exactly French. Not entirely Mexican. Chef Danny Godinez’s cooking is something wholly unique in O.C.

Chef Daniel Godinez opened his first restaurant, which gave Orange County its first taste of modern Mexican food, on a whim. The Acapulco, Mexico, native was working in the kitchen at Michael Mina’s upscale Dana Point outpost Stonehill Tavern eight years ago when a friend invited him along to look at a small location in an aging strip mall on Main Street in Orange.

The interior was in bad shape, but the storefront was cheap and he figured there were guaranteed customers from the hospital nearby, so when his friend passed on the opportunity to occupy it, Godinez — without a business plan or menu in mind — made the call for himself.

“I always wanted to do something on my own,” says the chef who spent the previous decade cutting his teeth in high-end kitchens across south Orange County. “I thought, ‘Let’s make it happen’ because I’m that kind of person. I don’t like to wait. I believe in something and I just go. That’s me.”

Anepalco’s Café made only $40 its first day. Profit during the first year wasn’t much better. Godinez wasn’t an expert in self promotion (he’s still not the grandstanding type), and some diners seemed not to know what to do with a fine-dining breakfast concept that served eggy French crepes alongside delicately plated huevos divorciados.

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The croque madame confused Francophiles with its blend of melty Gruyere and gooey Oaxaca cheese. And the chilaquiles at first offended traditionalists by forgoing the typical nacho-like dish, instead plating the chips drenched in salsa and topped with eggs and meat more like the stacks of tuna tartare that Godinez had been whipping up for most of his culinary life.

Anepalco’s Café wasn’t French enough to be a French restaurant, and it definitely didn’t look like any Mexican restaurant Orange County had seen before.

“It was pretty crazy and the economy was pretty bad too, but I got good feedback from the people. The next day, customers would bring in more friends, and I built the clients that way,” he says. “That was my motivation to keep going, knowing that some people liked our concept.”

Today, eating at Anepalco’s Café rarely comes without a wait for a table, and Godinez is locally known as “The Chilaquiles Guy” or, alternately, “The French-Mexican Chef.” Both of these are really misnomers, though, since what the classically trained culinary artist offers now is so much more.

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Between the original Anepalco’s Café, his 4-year-old dinner spot Anepalco and the more traditional forthcoming El Mercado in downtown Santa Ana (another concept is also expected to land in Pasadena by the end of the year, and a taqueria is in the works too), Godinez is proving himself to be one of the most creative — and underrated — chefs in the county.

Sure, his tuna-stack chilaquiles and guava French toasts are the thing of O.C. Instagram legend, and he served much of the same style of French-Mexican fusion for dinner when he first opened Anepalco, inside the Ayres Hotel on Chapman and The City Drive in Orange, four years ago. But inspired by his travels throughout Mexico and Latin America — including a backpacking trip to each of Mexico’s 31 states — Godinez rediscovered his passion for food from his homeland and in the last few years has rekindled the drive to share his interpretation of it.

“Chilaquiles is how [Anepalco’s Café] started, but I have a lot more to offer than that,” he says.

About a year and a half ago, he dropped the “Le Mexique French Cuisine” tagline from all branding and removed the Eiffel Tower that had been the “A” in the hotel restaurant’s logo. In its place is an elegant cursive design and the words “Cocina de Barrio” — kitchen from the ‘hood. A complete overhaul of the interior and menu followed, including the addition of a full bar with a killer mezcal selection, making the Anepalco of today an entirely different experience.

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Through a constantly rotating dinner menu complemented by seasonally changing craft cocktails, Godinez has been able to broaden his oeuvre, experimenting more with Mexican flavors and contemporary techniques to create dishes — like the DIY deconstructed tacos or the plate of octopus and plantains served atop a tequila bottle or the dessert of huitlacoche ice cream inspired by quesadillas in Mexico City — that are as fun and artfully composed as anything you’d find in an episode of “Chef’s Table.”

“Here is where I create my own cuisine in a Mexican way,” he says from a dark wooden table flanked by neon pink accents inside the revamped space. “I get my base ideas from Mexico, but I make it in my own way. Its my creative outlet.”

The result is a laboratory for Godinez’s cocina de autor, or signature cuisine, one that doesn’t fully fall within the modern Mexican movement currently happening throughout Mexico, nor does it culturally reflect the scene growing among second-generation Mexican American chefs in Southern California. It’s something entirely his own, that could only happen when someone who grew up helping his mother prep guisados and pozole for her street food stand in Mexico winds up learning the delicate details of fine dining cookery from strict French chefs at some of the top resort and hotel restaurants of Orange County.

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Next up for this only-in-O.C. chef: El Mercado, slated to open by the end of the summer in downtown Santa Ana, which will show off yet another side of Godinez’s skills. Five years in the making, the restaurant is where he’ll cook straight-up traditional dishes using modern techniques and his trademark execution.

Encouraged by that backpacking trip across Mexico, Godinez has prepared a menu of 31 dishes, one per state, to reflect the culinary diversity of his country. From appetizers to dessert, El Mercado will make it possible to eat your way through Mexico, just as Anepalco lets you taste a glimpse of the chef’s constantly creating mind.

“A lot of people don’t know about Mexican cuisine. They think it’s the same old same old. I want to show our customers what we have in Mexico,” Godinez says. “I’ve been holding onto this idea for years and I’ve been waiting a long time to express it.”

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SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.


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